Context as Crisis: The Street is a Book

The changing faces and storefronts reveal another chapter in the long ugly history of race and power.

by Daniel José Older on April 8th, 2015

A street in Cuba, electric wires hanging in between lines of storefronts and residences. It's a beautiful sunny day and people are walking down the street in the distance.

I used to have a regular patient, we’ll call him Bob, back when I worked the graveyard shift on a Brooklyn 911 ambulance. He would call every Friday night around ten o’clock and say he was about to have a seizure. In the inexplicable poetry of emergency jargon, the job would be translated onto our computer screen as STATUS EPILEPTICUS: patient having ongoing, persistent seizures, and we would, as per protocol, zoom across Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights, lights and sirens blasting, to pick the gentleman up and bring him, once again, to Brooklyn Hospital, where all the nurses greeted him as an old friend. As far as I know, he never had an actual seizure.

Everyone has their own definition of emergency, of crisis. Bob’s crisis, I suspect, had more to do with loneliness than anything our medicines could treat. Other folks call for nosebleeds, splinters, “chest pain” that was really back pain, their first menstruations. And, of course, some call for heart attacks, gunshot wounds, eviscerations. Many emergencies unravel over decades and then erupt suddenly: the man who attacks his wife with a hammer after years of emotional abuse, the bursting of an overburdened artery. Others simmer silently.

It’s become a lit-crit cliché to say a book’s setting is like a character. But it’s conflict, as Robert McKee writes, that is the music of story; how can setting function as conflict, as crisis? Structural anthropologist Marshall Sahelins conceptualized crisis in a historical context: following a wildly unusual, often traumatic event, a culture’s dominant mythology is thrown into the air, becomes up for grabs. “A kind of extraordinary rhetorical aporia,” as historian Mary Beard described the brief period following 9/11 when media, politicians and cultural critics scrambled to fill the void and give prominence to their own framing of the moment.

A crisis is a turning point, a crossroads at which various power players and culture warriors clash and cohere. But like the chronic woes of our 911 frequent flyers, these crossroads moments often stretch over years, decades. Take the American City: Great White Flight and the resulting disenfranchisement left many urban centers in economic ruin, a historical trend that has been almost entirely reversed in the past decade as influxes of wealthy white people systematically displace and scatter neighborhoods of color.

What does this look like, on the street level? How do every day moments within the everchanging crossroads that is the city tell us about larger histories? An elderly friend of mine once took me on a tour through the rapidly gentrifying Prospect Heights neighborhood. Here’s where they arrested Old Charlie for that string of bank robberies; this café used to be a barbershop, this bakery: a social club. Bill met his wife at that bodega, they’ve both been dead years now. In New York, the changing faces and storefronts reveal another chapter in the long ugly history of race and power. Layers of history and meaning unraveled themselves at each site. We paused at an intersection and my friend shook his head. Most of his friends had died or been displaced by rising rents. A real estate agent grinned and ushered gawking outsiders past a faded memorial mural, directing their attention to a shining highrise.

I thought about the streets of Havana, where offerings lay like inanimate pilgrims at the feet of ceiba trees – fruits, flowers, pictures, the occasional beheaded chicken. Each offering, a prayer, each prayer a story. The nine eggplants decaying at the gates of Cristobal Colón cemetery are an offering to Oya, the warrior woman who rides into battle with a beard on and rules the graveyards. Candy and coins left at the crossroads placate Elegba, the wily gatekeeper of life’s decisions. All the small details, once eccentricities or simply invisible to me, came to unveil entire worlds of spirit and community, memories and mythologies.

The street is a book; its pages are smudged with the fingerprints of history, the ever-changing currents of power and progress, oppression and survival. Humanity stirs amidst the paragraphs and pagebreaks of each corner and blinking streetlight.

Setting as crisis — the street and its many offerings of knowledge and myth, the politics hidden in daily happenstance – is really a question of context. This is what we sci-fi/fantasy people call worldbuilding, but every genre has work to do in constructing layers of universe around a narrative. When we speak about context, we’re looking at something beyond the simple fact of setting. Setting is a place and a time, but when we add the complications of power, politics, privilege – then we are beginning to build a rich, nuanced environment to deploy our characters across. This is context.

And we the writers, whether we admit it or not, are responsible for the always political act of contextualizing our stories. The art of contextualizing is inherently political because it defines what matters: what we place center stage, what we push to the margins, what we erase. A photographer makes this call in an instant – with a turn of a switch or the choice of an angle, a massacre can become a revolution and vice-a-versa. When crafting a story, it’s the writer’s job to let the world bleed through onto the page in a way that feels natural, unforced. What truths are told in the daily existence of each character? What secrets does the street reveal?

When I write, New York’s ongoing saga of mass displacement and cultures in conflict figures largely into the worldbuilding. From where I sit, where moving vans come and go daily and racist police violence continues to destroy lives, it’s hard to imagine how that element of New York wouldn’t show up somehow in a book set here. I layered the supernatural elements of my stories – an ancient sisterhood of storycollectors, a half-dead hit man, a librarian ghost who takes up an entire brownstone, a plague of tiny imps on exercise bikes, and on and on – into this context of a city in throes of violent change and let the narrative unravel.

Octavia Butler brings the tragic future to life with complexity and verve in her Parable duology, mostly because she wasn’t afraid to address race, class and gender in the dying world of Lauren Olamina. There are no simple answers here, unlike so many other dystopias we see, no singular big bad guy whose destruction will unravel all the ills of the universe, and the Parable books stand out in part for their refusal to simplify. It’s the vampire we remember, but much of Dracula’s genius lies in Stoker’s use of multiple textual voices – newspaper clippings, diary entries, dialect-heavy conversations amidst small town English fishermen – that build a complicated world into which the Count and his denizens lurk. Victor Lavalle’s Devil In Silver uses context to draw lines between the horror of a recluse murderer and the dehumanization of our corrupt mental health system.

When we as writers enter a story with a clear understanding of the power dynamics within that world, when we worldbuild and contextualize with intentionality and precision, we can then relieve the plot itself of bearing the burden of a social message. Stories lean towards propaganda when we force the narrative itself to provide the politics without properly setting the scene. A narrative is a single line. It may be a circular one, it may even be crafted from several lines, but ultimately, we’re dealing with a beginning, middle and end, whereas context forms the multilayered universe around that line. Here there is room for nuanced forms of power, the uncomfortable moments and crossroads, the lingering ghosts of lost chronicles – the very elements that make stories sing instead of drone. Here we create ambiguity that goes beyond good and evil, here we can probe the depths of solidarity, oppression, upliftment. Here time and place, the city and the street come to life, unfurl raggedy wings and reveal this dissonant truth: crisis is not a singular moment or neat little package to be solved and dispensed with, but a constant state.