12/05/2011 12:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2012

What's My Genre, Anyway?

Last September I was in Turkey for the second-ever Writers and Literary Translators International Congress. Keynote Speaker Maureen Freely, who translates Orhan Pamuk's books, said during her address that translating is much the same as writing novels, which she also writes, and articles, which she writes as well. "You have to find the emotional center of the work," she said.

I remembered that moment recently, when I was asked to describe what fiction does. I've published in fiction, journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry, and literary translation -- around 70 publications total, not including my blog from Mongolia. I'm certainly invested in whatever causes me to do this work, but I'm not as invested in what constitutes fiction, fiction that is separate from fact, unless a prisoner's life depends on it -- and it often does, especially in this age of dissidents with social media tools in nations that enforce censorship. What differentiates a piece of nonfiction from a piece of fiction is first and foremost a political question to me, and I am not the one who answers it. Editors are.

In 2003's The Next American Essay, an anthology of pieces that editor John D'Agata calls "lyric essays," D'Agata's own introductions of each piece illustrate the genre dispute further: he suggest that at least some of Sherman Alexei's "fictional" work was essentially nonfiction that it may not have been safe or politically welcome to publish as such when it first saw print. Jamaica Kincaid's oft-anthologized story "Girl" is in The Next American Essay. D'Agata claims it as creative nonfiction. The appropriation of a piece of literature to a certain genre is a process descriptive of the political moment in which the text finds itself; it's indicative of what's permitted to be described as fact in a particular cultural atmosphere (ours currently allows for what Stephen Colbert coined as "Truthiness"), whether it's intended to be or not.

Perhaps partly because I am aware that many pieces of prose could be claimed as prose poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, I don't know what the function of fiction is as distinct from the functions of other genres, so I wonder, rather, what the function of literature is. I wonder how and when that function changes, in a free society, in a censored one. Literature has been an escape, but it has also been a return for the removed. It's both balm and bane; it galvanizes, it soothes. People die to read it, people die to write it; there must be something there of grave human import. I worked this summer with refugee prostitutes in the slums of Nairobi, asked to walk in with 20 minutes notice and give a workshop for them, and wondered what words could do for them, what written words can do for trauma victims.

I am interested in empathy, in the love that is there across spaces and abstractions and spans of time, when the words of some writer dead or alive bring joy or comfort or illumination to someone, someone who would not have the capacity to need those things, would not have a hole to fill with literature, if they did not sometimes feel alone. I believe fiction is important to the very different realms of a) pleasurable escape from this world; and b) a rootedness to it through messages meant to comment on oppressive political regimes and cultural codes, but even then it's arguable that the other genres inhabit those spheres also. I don't know if fiction does something different than poetry or memoir or journalism. They all contain some degree of the narrativizing that by its very nature requires the subjective construction present in fiction and perhaps all acts of human art or communication.

"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," Emily Dickinson wrote. There's no way not to tell it slant. Even if you're producing a court record you're not. Mongolia, for example, where I lived for 15 months total, is just bizarre. There'll be an abandoned Soviet power plant in the middle of the eternal Gobi desert and a bunch of camels standing in front of it and that's just what's up, so I write about that. Inadvertently my work (and many others') does honor the inability of linear narrative to capture the experience of being in a body on the planet, where there is not only a kind of randomness in the eyes of a foreigner to what she sees, but where there is such violence and trauma rupturing our experiences, our memories, taking us out of the straightforward story with those ruptures of loss and pain.

When I was directing the play my refugee girl-group created this summer in Nairobi, I thought I didn't know how to direct theater and then I realized it was like editing a piece of creative nonfiction, moving fragments around, and listening for the right pitch. A bell rings and there you have it, you know you found it. It resonates with the bell inside you and you know you hit it -- the thing Freely calls "the emotional center of the work." Then other people see it or read it and if the genre is unclear, they'll often say things about it to define the genre, and the choice they make isn't personal as much as it's illustrative of a certain political or cultural system of allowance -- a system of which they might not be entirely conscious; their response could take the form of a simple, "This reads better as a story." And sometimes these readers are editors, who might publish it as something different than how you thought of it, and by then that choice has little to do with you. At that point it has more to do with whatever climate led to the production of the word "Truthiness": a climate in which decisions like "This isn't a poem! It's a story!" are indicators of immense political freedom -- but are rarely recognized as such. We're enormously lucky that we can argue over what makes something true. It's a much larger conversation than one exclusive to bookworms.