Writing Fiction About Controversial Issues

By Susanne Carter

Every day somewhere around the globe a bomb explodes. People going about the mundane routines of their daily lives are killed or injured. The world takes momentary notice and moves on, the incident quickly forgotten.

Novelist Karan Mahajan, however, never forgot the car bomb set off in 1996 by Kahmiri separatists in the busy Lajpat Nagar marketplace just a few miles from his Delhi home. Sixteen years later the incident became the basis of his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, which focuses on the explosion of a “small bomb” and the tragic human toll it exacts on those involved.

In this guest blog, I discuss how Mahajan portrays the human side of terrorism. In the Writers’ Notes, I provide thoughts on writing fiction about controversial issues.

The Association of Small Bombs

Although there is a growing body of post-9/11 literature, Karan Mahajan is one of the first novelists to look at acts of terror and their enduring traumatic effects on those who are involved both intentionally and unintentionally, including perpetrators, survivors, and victims’ families. Mahajan takes us inside the minds and souls of characters in each of these groups and probes psychological issues such as trust, disillusionment, grief, guilt, blame, shame, idealism, confusion, and alienation that define their lives. What we take away from this powerful and beautifully written novel is that, despite the paths we take in life (some of which we choose and some which are chosen for us), we are all ultimately much more alike than we are different.

The Association of Small Bombs is unlike anything I’ve ever read,” writes reviewer Whitney Lorraine, “investigating the fears and motivations of all sides at the heart of a terrorist attack.” She continues:

Mahajan manages to show the embittered terrorists working to make a world in their vision, children who live with the physical and mental ramifications of being a survivor, and the parents who live every day with the knowledge that they were unable to shield their children from evil.

A Feeling of Empathy

All of us can empathize with the grieving father in Mahajan’s novel who lost two young sons during the marketplace blasts and feels torn between the urge to move on and the need to stay frozen in time and place. We enter his conflicted thoughts:

How am I supposed to respond to this thing that has happened to me? A few weeks ago I was standing here, looking through this garbled, pearly whorled window for my kids on the street, seeing instead the servants skulking under the ashokas. Now they’re gone, forever, no matter how long I stay here like faithful Hachiko, from their English reader. And yet I have an urge to stay here forever. An urge to punish myself by looking, by scouring every inch of tarred road and glittering gutter and veined dust-sprinkled leaf, in every season, at all times, for my boys—to look till I go blind or mad, till my brain revolts, staging a headache in the space where I am trying to insert the entire city by looking. (p. 72)

As we read The Association of Small Bombs we may even empathize with the terrorist who begins as an idealist but gradually becomes disillusioned and cynical when confronted with daily injustices and the glacial pace of political change. Mahajan’s profiles of terrorists illustrate his point made during a New Stateman interview: “Terrorism doesn’t come simply from poverty or religious radicalism; there are massive gray areas in between where disaffection is bred.”

Beyond plumbing his childhood memory, Mahajan was interested in writing about terrorism because he wanted to probe beneath the surface through multiple lenses and look at “the very complex ideological reasons behind these almost abstract acts of violence.” Many writers shy away from writing about the controversial issue of terrorism, said Mahajan during an interview with Guernica, because of the word itself. “People don’t quite know what to do with the word. The word can be bigger than the event itself, and it keeps people from seeing clearly.”

Writers’ Notes:

Writing about controversial subjects such as terrorism is undoubtedly challenging and a bit risky, but it also represents an opportunity for writers to promote understanding—to put a human face on tragedies that happen so often now in our world that we begin to view them with numb indifference. “Writing is a way of exploring such dark issues,” explains AJ Humpage, “to open up about them and to try to find the reasons behind it. Writing is all about finding out why people do the things they do, to uncover universal truths.”

As artists, Humpage maintains, “writers are free to explore the forbidden or usually unavoidable subjects, however unsavoury they may be.” She continues:

Sometimes fiction can highlight the things that must be highlighted, rather than remain hidden away from society. Sometimes ignorance means we don’t have to confront the terrible things that are taking place in the world. If we don’t know about it, we don’t have to care… It’s a way of exploring such dark issues, to open up about them and to try to find the reasons behind it. Writing is all about finding out why people do the things they do, to uncover universal truths.

Here is some guidance on writing fiction about controversial topics.

  1. Research your topic thoroughly.

If you’re writing about an issue that’s controversial, you need to make sure you are writing about it accurately. Even though Karan Mahajan was born in India and is familiar with the culture, he did extensive research before writing this novel. The process took “tons of reading, travel and conversation,” he said during an interview with Interview. “I conducted a lot of research on the ways survivors in India cope in a fairly hostile, indifferent environment, where the press may forget about a blast after a few days and the government might infinitely postpone hearings and no one respects your privacy.”

  1. Write about controversial issues “with great respect and care.”

Writers should never exploit controversy for the sake of controversy. “As writers, we should not be afraid of tackling the more unpleasant issues, whether it’s about violent sex, sexual fantasies, death, children, torture, incest, terrorism etc.,” advises Humpage, “but such stories should be written with great respect and care… Writers have a moral responsibility to show the impact and emotion and reality of the issue without mocking or demeaning the subject.”

  1. Humanize your villains.

The Association of Small Bombs succeeds in large part because all of the characters are humanized, even the bombers. By exposing us to their interior lives and showing us their strengths and flaws, these characters become three-dimensional and very believable.

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How do you approach writing about controversial issues?